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Kirby v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

September 30, 2019


          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1], [2]


         Plaintiff Jarrett Lamar Kirby (“Kirby”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Doc. 1). Kirby timely pursued and exhausted his administrative remedies. This case is therefore ripe for review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The undersigned has carefully considered the record and, for the reasons stated below, the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         Kirby filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on April 20, 2015, alleging he became unable to work beginning March 23, 2015. (Tr. 16, 166-69). The Agency initially denied Kirby’s application and Kirby requested a hearing, where he appeared on May 17, 2017. (Tr. 16, 96-122). After the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Kirby’s claim on June 29, 2017. (Tr. 13-40). Kirby sought review by the Appeals Council, but it denied his request on April 13, 2018. (Tr. 1-7). On that date, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On June 12, 2018, Kirby initiated this action. (See doc. 1).

         Kirby was sixty-one on his hearing date. (Tr. 109). Kirby has a tenth-grade education and previous work as a forklift operator and truck driver. (Tr. 109, 116).

         II. Standard of Review [3]

         The court’s review of the Commissioner’s decision is narrowly circumscribed. The function of this Court is to determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence and whether proper legal standards were applied. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Wilson v. Barnhart, 284 F.3d 1219, 1221 (11th Cir. 2002). This Court must “scrutinize the record as a whole to determine if the decision reached is reasonable and supported by substantial evidence.” Bloodsworth v. Heckler, 703 F.2d 1233, 1239 (11th Cir. 1983). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. It is “more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Id.

         This Court must uphold factual findings supported by substantial evidence. However, it reviews the ALJ’s legal conclusions de novo because no presumption of validity attaches to the ALJ’s determination of the proper legal standards to be applied. Davis v. Shalala, 985 F.2d 528, 531 (11th Cir. 1993). If the court finds an error in the ALJ’s application of the law, or if the ALJ fails to provide the court with sufficient reasoning for determining the proper legal analysis has been conducted, it must reverse the ALJ’s decision. Cornelius v. Sullivan, 936 F.2d 1143, 1145-46 (11th Cir. 1991).

         III. Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         To qualify for disability benefits and establish his or her entitlement for a period of disability, a claimant must be disabled as defined by the Social Security Act and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.[4] The Regulations define “disabled” as “the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). To establish entitlement to disability benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a “physical or mental impairment” which “must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508.

         The Regulations provide a five-step process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). The Commissioner must determine in sequence:

(1) whether the claimant is currently employed;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment;
(3) whether the claimant’s impairment meets or equals an impairment listed by the [Commissioner];
(4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past work; and
(5) whether the claimant is capable of performing any work in the national economy.

Pope v. Shalala, 998 F.2d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 1993) (citing to the formerly applicable C.F.R. section), overruled on other grounds by Johnson v. Apfel, 189 F.3d 561, 562-63 (7th Cir. 1999); accord McDaniel v. Bowen, 800 F.2d 1026, 1030 (11th Cir. 1986). “Once the claimant has satisfied steps One and Two, she will automatically be found disabled if she suffers from a listed impairment. If the claimant does not have a listed impairment but cannot perform her work, the burden shifts to the [Commissioner] to show that the claimant can perform some other job.” Pope, 998 F.2d at 477; accord Foote v. Chater, 67 F.3d 1553, 1559 (11th Cir. 1995). The Commissioner must further show such work exists in the national economy in significant numbers. Id.

         IV. Findings of the Administrative Law Judge

         After consideration of the entire record and application of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ made the following findings:

         At Step One, the ALJ found Kirby met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after his alleged onset date of March 23, 2015. (Tr. 19). At Step Two, the ALJ found Kirby has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, panic disorder, and borderline intellectual functioning. (Tr. 19). At Step Three, the ALJ found Kirby did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 24).

         Before proceeding to Step Four, the ALJ determined Kirby’s residual functioning capacity (“RFC”), which is the most a claimant can do despite his impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). The ALJ determined that, through his date last insured (“DLI”), Kirby had the RFC

to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except with no driving; no unrestricted heights; no foot control operation, and no climbing. He should have only occasional contact with the general public and be restricted to simple, repetitive, non-complex tasks.

(Tr. 27).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that, through the DLI, Kirby was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 34). At Step Five, the ALJ found that, based on Kirby’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Kirby could perform. (Tr. 34-35). Therefore, the ALJ determined Kirby has not been under a disability and denied his claim. (Tr. 36).

         V. Analysis

         Although the court may only reverse a finding of the Commissioner if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if improper legal standards were applied, “[t]his does not relieve the court of its responsibility to scrutinize the record in its entirety to ascertain whether substantial evidence supports each essential administrative finding.” Walden v. Schweiker, 672 F.2d 835, 838 (11th Cir. 1982) (citing Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1106 (5th Cir. 1980)). The court, however, “abstains from reweighing the evidence or substituting its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Id. (citation omitted).

         Kirby raises six arguments in support of reversal and/or remand: (1) the ALJ inappropriately rejected opinion evidence, (doc. 10 at 19-24); (2) the decision was tainted by the ALJ’s history of “substituting his opinion for the opinion of examining medical experts, (id. at 25-32); (3) the ALJ erred by failing to make a credibility finding regarding Kirby, (id. at 32-38); (4) the ALJ improperly failed to apply Grid Rules 201.02 and 202.02, which would have directed a finding of disabled, (id. at 38-40); (5) the ALJ failed to consider the side effects of Kirby’s medications, (id. at 40-42); and (6) the ALJ’s decision “was not based on substantial evidence, ” which is substantively an attack on the ALJ’s reliance on vocational examiner (“VE”) testimony, (id. at 42-45). Each is discussed separately below.

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in ...

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